In Miami, Interior chief says what’s at stake

Photos by Marlena Skrobe

Salazar calls outdoors ‘massive economic engine’

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar opened the Miami conference of environmental journalists Wednesday night saying that America’s great outdoors was a “massive economic engine for the nation.”

He said recreation in the national parks alone created $55 billion in economic activity last year and had accounted for more than 400,000 jobs. More than 15 million Americans hunt, he said, and even more go fishing regularly.

“The extent to which our land, water and wildlife fuel our economy is not adequately understood or reported,” Salazar told hundreds of journalists, government officials, leaders of non-governmental organizations, scientists, environmental leaders in business and academia at the 21st annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Miami. They came from around the United States, throughout Latin America and Europe and as distant as Asia.

The conference runs for five days. Many of the participants on Thursday will be exploring South Florida in field trips to study coral reefs and sharks, the snakes, birds and alligators of the Everglades and the effects of a rising ocean on the waterfront neighborhoods of Miami and Miami Beach.

On Friday panel discussions delve into the impact of commercial fishing on the oceans, the decline in support for government programs to reduce pollution and exam climate change as a cultural issue. Saturday the participants get an update on the multi-billion dollar restoration work in the Everglades and hear about oil drilling in Cuban waters just 40 miles off Florida. The conference ends Sunday with a breakfast at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and a conversation with some of Florida’s most successful authors of books relating to the environment. Some of the participants will spend a few days the following week exploring the Florida Keys.

The organizers say the environmental group has never had a conference with so many high-ranking government officials.

Among the others from Washington: Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service; Marcia McNutt, the director of the U.S.  Geological Survey, and Steven Platnick, the director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Earth Observing System as well as the chiefs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

Jeff Burnside, a Miami television reporter and one of the co-chairs of the conference, said he expected lots of news articles to come out of the gathering. “It’s hard to think of one place where so many newsmakers have assembled,” Burnside said.

Salazar was the lead speaker in a string of headliners that included Donna M. Shalala, the president of the University of Miami, and five members of the extended family of Jacques Cousteau, a pioneer in ocean exploration and conservation. Carl Hiaasen, a columnist for the Miami Herald and best-selling author of wildly eccentric novels that play out in the swamps and beach of South Florida, said he thought Salazar was right in his remarks about economics and nature.

Hiaasen said, “The economy of a place like Florida — if you lose the beach, if you lose the environment,  you lose the economy.”

Shalala, whose university is hosting the conference, told the group that her university with more than 10,000 students and one of the world’s most highly regarded schools of marine and atmospheric science was “committed to treading lightly on the planet.”

She said students were discouraged from bringing cars to the campus and that the university had begun selling cheap bicycles to students and making available Zip cars that can be rented by the hour.   The school uses “eco-friendly, clean products” she said and would make sure that new buildings on campus would use the least possible energy and water.

Alligators and neon signs and shaking hands with sharks beckoned on the horizon at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 21st annual conference in Miami. But the sessions for writers, reporters, editors and visual journalists to brainstorm over climate change, the green economy and sustainable supply chain was begun with all serious business on opening day Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Hiaasen signed copies of his book as more than 100 journalists from the U.S. and all over the world flocked a standing-room only panel discussion on the state of international environmental reporting. Titled “Fertile Field or Fallow Ground?” the two-hour question and answer session touched on subjects such as financing and grants for travel projects, issues surrounding sea level rise, extreme climate changes and hazardous environment risk training — which many first-time participants thought sounded like fun.

Henrique Kugler, who writes for a magazine in Brazil, said he was just thrilled to be at the conference  absorbing the energy and information. “I graduated last year. It means I am a baby journalist,” Kugler said. “I am so excited to hear from all of you. I have so much to learn.”

But immediately — maybe the brainstorming was contagious — he started suggesting collaborations. “You guys have more know-how, all the know-how. We in Brazil have everything else.”

He said that while most journalists and environmental publications in Brazil concentrated on the Amazon and the depletion of rainforest resources or, conversely, trends. “It’s what grabs the attention. The iphone is science for them,” Kugler said. “Our editor tries to get into the universities to see what professors are teaching.”

Imelda Abano from the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists shared how her organization was trying to put the policy-makers and scientists with the community to solve problems. “They are trying to understand the local events, but the local people know more than they do,” Abano said. “In the Philippines, we are living every day in extreme weather. They can physically show them, ‘Our houses used to be over there. ‘ ”

In the South Sudan, the community has to try to balance environmental concerns with the dire need for development for the basics. “I’m interested in learning more about sustainability: how the environment can be used to sustain and foment development,” said Patricia Okoed Bukumunte, Network editor and correspondent in Juba.

After one panel discussion,  Abano and Okoed stayed to chat and exchange information as Kugler talked about his plans to go on a field trip on  Thursday’s session to the National Hurricane Center. He said he hoped to learn about satellite forecasts because in Brazil, there is only one satellite they share with North America, he said. “And when something happens up there, it’s up there all the time. Our forecast gets messed up.”

The descendants of Jacques Cousteau, who died in  1997 at the age of 87, are all involved in environmental work. In the opening of the conference they talked about their projects around the world and showed video clips. Jean-Michel Cousteau, age 73,  is the founder of  the Ocean Futures Society and  Jacques Cousteau’s surviving son. He complained that people were “still using the ocean as a garbage can” and said it was “time to wake up.” #

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